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Chapter 14:

  • The battle of Belmont, on the Mississippi, described in a letter from a friend
  • -- the forces of General Pillow surprised by Grant -- the Southern troops narrowly escape a defeat -- reenforcements from General Polk and Columbus -- arrival of Polk on the field -- the Federal troops defeated and spoils taken -- characters of General Pillow and General Polk compared -- misrepresentations of the Northern press.

I had only just returned to my regiment at Leesburgh when I received a letter from a Kentucky friend, serving under General Polk, at Columbus, descriptive of the engagement at Belmont, which had been fought some time before at the village of that name in Missouri:

Columbus, Ky., Nov. 10th, 1861.
Dear Tom: You will, ere this reaches you, have heard more than one account of the late fight at Belmont; but this will satisfy you that I am all right, and ready to have another “shake” with the Great Anaconda, so much talked of in the North. In my former letter, I fully informed you of the stupendous works raised here by General Gustavus Smith, and of our having occupied Belmont opposite, so as to command both banks of the stream. But the enemy appeared to know as well as we did that our force on the west bank was not very formidable, nor our works of a very threatening character, and so determined to surprise General Pillow some fine morning.

In pursuance of his amiable purpose, Grant collected a fleet of large river steamboats, and embarking at night, steamed down the river unobserved. Within a few miles of Columbus and Belmont, the river makes a sudden bend, and behind this bend Grant disembarked his forces, and began to advance towards Belmont, through the woods. When morning broke, the action commenced; the first intimation of the enemy's presence being a succession of rapid volleys. The troops were soon under arms, but the sudden surprise precluded all idea of a regular line or plan of battle. We at Columbus had heard the rapid [119] fire for more than an hour, but knew not its cause. The word was passed to our brigade to “fall in;” and before we could conjecture the meaning of all this, General Polk rode up, and informed us, very briefly, that Pillow had been attacked by an overwhelming force under Grant, and that we were going to the rescue.

In a short time we were steaming across — not to Belmont, but towards the Yankee landing-place up the river, keeping as close in shore as possible to avoid notice; for had the enemy boldly advanced down the river, and engaged the boats, disregarding our batteries, nothing in the world could have saved us. We had not proceeded far, when their guns on the battlefield were turned against us, but without effect, and we were soon landed in the timber on the. enemy's flank and rear. Advancing out of the woods into the “open,” we were received with volleys of musketry and grape; but the aim was too high or many would have suffered. When we arrived at close quarters, we discovered the enemy rapidly falling back from their main attack, and seeking to regain their boats. Thus invited we attacked them vigorously with the bayonet, and for a full hour chased them through woods and fields, making every shot tell among the retreating crowd. We captured several pieces of cannon, and drove them to their boats. The scene at the landing was awful. The miserable wretches were rushing on board in great confusion, while our men kept up a continual shower of lead amongst them. We made several attempts to capture some of the boats, but did not succeed.

Although not on the field when the fight opened, I fully understand the true position of affairs, and must say that the fight was a desperate one. When the enemy were reported landing troops a few miles above, the garrison in Belmont consisted of only two regiments. Pillow, with four regiments, immediately crossed and assumed command. He had scarcely done so, when Grant's advance opened fire, and the fight soon became fierce and obstinate. The enemy, who knew our weakness, would have succeeded in surrounding our left only for the destructive fire of a battery placed there, and the rapidity with which troops in support maintained their deadly volleys. This wing was severely taxed, as was also the right; but despite all [120] their efforts, the enemy could not force them, though assisted by powerful artillery.

Having failed in his attack on the wings, Grant knew there was little time to spare, and repeatedly hurled his strongest force at our centre, which occupied open ground. The firing here was incessant, and we gradually gave way. Pillow then ordered a charge, and the first line of the enemy was driven in confusion upon their reserves. But our ammunition now began to fail, and word came that the wings could not maintain their position if the centre gave in, as there was every reason to fear it would do. Again a charge was ordered, which proved no less successful than the first. It was now found that our only battery had not a cartridge remaining, and most of the troops were similarly circumstanced; there was no alternative but to fall back until reenforcements should arrive from Columbus.

Taking up a strong position on the river-bank, Pillow arranged his lines for the final assault of the enemy; it being supposed, as they had full possession of our camps, and were firing them, that Grant would hurry forward his columns, and give us no time to re-form. As fortune would have it, three regiments arrived at this critical moment to reenforce us, and it was determined to move them up the river-bank and get in the enemy's rear. The enemy had seen our boats crossing, and played on them with a heavy battery; but the guns at Columbus replied, and in a few moments the enemy's pieces were silenced. Finding that Polk himself was crossing, and landing troops far up the river on his line of retreat, Grant immediately began to fall back, but had not proceeded far when he encountered Louisianians, Mississippians, Tennesseeans, and others formed on his flanks, subjecting him to loss every moment, while the guns at Columbus continued rapidly firing across the river, and from the high position of the works, were made to tell with deadly effect. Under these circumstances resistance was hopeless, and Grant reluctantly ordered a retreat, but while conducting it was subjected to a terrific cross-fire from our troops, while Polk in person was pushing their rear vigorously, capturing prisoners and arms every yard of the road. The confusion, noise, and excitement were terrible, the enemy rapidly retreating to their boats, and our advance columns pouring [121] deadly volleys into them; thus almost miraculously changing a defeat into a glorious triumph for our arms.

The number of dead and dying that blocked up the landing-place was very great, and it seemed a matter of wonder to me how so many men could have successfully embarked and made their escape in so short a time. Had our officers been active, and brought down some field-pieces in time, we might have disabled the boats, and caused awful havoc among their densely packed numbers. We captured several hundred prisoners, several thousand stand of arms, and a few cannon, but, as the enemy simply came with their arms, and did not even carry a blanket to impede their activity in this enterprise, little else of value.

General Pillow has to thank his stars that Polk so quickly came to his succor, or, instead of being hailed as victors, we might all have been snugly provided for in some New-England fort or penitentiary. Yet his vanity is not less conspicuous now than it was in Mexico, and he is eternally carping at “the bishop,” as he terms Polk, who nevertheless, is a capable and laborious commander, accessible at all times by high and low, a thorough disciplinarian, and fine engineer. If he chose to leave the army in former times and enter the Episcopal Church, and become a learned bishop among his brethren, it surely does not detract from his repute as a gentleman, a Christian, and a scholar, to say that he resigned his charge in answer to the especial call of the Executive, who demanded the service of all talented men in behalf of the common cause. Polk was a good bishop; he is now an excellent and accomplished Major-General, and possesses the entire confidence, love, and respect of all who know or serve under him. Pillow is annoyed, however, because he himself was not placed in chief command at Columbus — a position for which he is totally unfitted, as subsequent events will fully demonstrate.

But to return to the battle. This, as you know, is the first time I have ever been under fire, and I confess I felt very uncomfortable. We were convinced that our boys had been having the worst of it all the morning, or our haste would not have been so pressing. We had scarcely landed when one of Pillow's orderlies rode up and begged us for God's sake “to hurry up,” as the boys were hard pressed, and had been fighting a [122] long time against odds, and were only recovering from the confusion in which they had been thrown. As we marched out into open ground we gave loud yells, and commenced firing. Many of our men falling every moment, the thought continually occurred to me that my turn would come next, yet inspired by the example of our officers, we rushed to close quarters, determined to bring matters to a conclusion. But enough; I shall not attempt to describe further this battle-field to you, but conclude, humbly thanking God for the victory.

I have to-day received late Northern papers; it is unnecessary to say that Belmont is put down as “Another national victory,” etc., in very large capitals, with “full accounts of the Rebel loss.” To believe these scribbling fools, “the back-bone of the rebellion” is well-nigh broken; yet, between ourselves, I think the job will prove too big, and break their hearts and pockets over it first . ... Yours, as ever, ...

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